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The personal tragedies of high stakes testing

I teach at one of the "successful" high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the ones in the suburbs with high(er) standardized test scores. With the astronomical growth of high-stakes testing since the mid 1990s, many parents, education officials, and even teachers equate higher than average standardized test scores with success.

In public high schools, high scores on standardized tests are great for business. I've come to believe, though, that even for "successful" schools, the accolades gained don't justify the institutional and personal consequences of the testing itself.

These negative consequences are only partially based on the inherent, well-attested inadequacies of the standardized tests. More important are the deep personal consequences for the students, teachers and administrators who are dragged into this system.

Several weeks ago, we gave End-of-Course tests at my school. Each student takes eight total tests, two 150-minute exams per day for four straight days. Imagine 30 15-to-18-year-olds in a room, each with his or her own color-coded test. Four or five students are nervous and ask questions like: "What percentage of our grade does this count for?" (The English teachers love that one.) The tests count for 25 percent of their grade for the entire year.

Several other students are cool and collected. They've gotten plenty of sleep, eaten a good breakfast and have two perfectly sharpened #2 pencils. They've been on a strict eight-hour study regimen for two weeks. Many a teacher's pride rests on this group of "good ones," the secondary school scholars.

The rest of the students have a physical presence in the classroom, but they're really somewhere else. Some are at the mall, others are at band practice or with new boyfriends/girlfriends. They may have studied some, but they just don't care. They know how numbingly boring and disingenuous the tests are. Faces are blank, minds dead in anticipation. Then the teacher begins the test administration. "You will need two sharpened number two pencils for this test. Make sure that your pencils are number two and that they are sharpened. Does everyone have two sharpened number two pencils? Are there any questions?" That is close, if not word for word, from the state test administration guide.

Prior to test day, students and teachers waste weeks in large-scale reviews. Entire courses are glossed over in 50 worksheets. Teachers go grumbling to long meetings about the security and omnipotence of the sacred test. Long memos on fluorescent pink paper abound. Expensive and scarce, colored paper is used for emphasis, to distinguish it from the mountains of other memos. They say things like: "YOU ARE EXPECTED TO IMPRESS UPON STUDENTS THE IMPORTANCE OF THESE TESTS!!!"

Schools pay full time testing tsars to coordinate all the tests. They get big salaries (at least by public school standards) and a labeled parking spot out front.

My principal starts all the testing meetings with statements like, "I know nobody likes it, but this testing is just something we have to do, and do right. I expect 3 percent growth. That is our bread and butter here." The principal's statement tries to acknowledge and simultaneously brush aside what everyone in the meeting knows: you cannot possibly assess a year of gritting it out every day in the classroom with one 2.5 hour, color-coded, multiple-choice test created by some bureaucrat in Raleigh. All teachers and administrators know this -- just ask them. Nonetheless, the "we just have to do it" attitude prevails.

The real irony of all the horn-blowing about the tests is that it is almost universally acknowledged among the staff that the whole standardized testing process is worthless. Wink, wink -- nod, nod. Again, the inadequacies of standardized tests are well-attested by academics and are well-known by teachers and administrators who work with students every day. And yet, while I'm in the office of the principal or department chair getting the "you are not teaching to the test" lecture, I see that they have the same books I do. You know, graduate school books that education students once read, books that argue clearly for more authentic forms of assessment and against the current testing regimes.

Just like the rest of the school, I know the tests are absurd, and I tell my students as much. Not that they need convincing -- they know in a deep way that the hundreds of hours of thought and consideration they've put in this year aren't covered in the test booklet. I tell them that, by convention and now law, the test is a big part of their grade. My students also do well on it; but I don't try to dupe them into thinking that this is what is best for them. It is just not honest. We talk and learn and think everyday together; they know better than that.

And that is the worst part. Despite all the jargon, students already feel that it's a sham. If nothing else, teenagers can see through a hollow scheme. After all, part of their world and their emerging identity is constructed of smoke screens and mirror jobs. Teenagers spend a lot of time convincing others that they are poets, thugz or punks, or that they're not freaks, sluts or nerds. They are keen to "sell-outs" and apostates because they straddle that same line. That's why I like them, and learn from them. My students don't have 30 years of experience and tenure, but they can just feel that the tests are simply masquerading as important.

What does it do to a 15-year-old to hear their teachers and administrators try to blackmail them into hopping on the testing bandwagon? How does it feel to have such high value placed on something everyone knows isn't that important or useful? Is it the test that's important or the actual process of education? What happens when your teachers, people you should look up to, are just following an insane system despite their better judgment? What happens to the hearts and minds of the teachers who know better?

Simply put, students lose respect for their teachers. Students start to believe that their teacher's perspective is bankrupt, that teachers are just old talking heads. Teaching and learning becomes drudgery, just something you have to do, like the tests. Good kids are lost to education permanently. Students and teachers become confused about what's important, good grades or the subject. The personal and social consequences of this are huge.

And many students give up (on high school), especially the truly intelligent. They're certainly smart enough to do well on the tests, but they're also too smart to waste their time and energy working so hard just to get some grade. Many caring teachers give up too, and just go along with it. The waste is prodigious.

Merriweather Lewis is the pseudonym for a teacher in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools system.

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